- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Rival Palestinian factions signed a power-sharing accord aimed at ending months of bloodshed yesterday, agreeing that the Islamist militant group Hamas would head a new coalition government that would “respect” past peace agreements with Israel.

However, the United States and Israel have demanded the new government explicitly renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to uphold past peace accords. The vague promise to respect past deals — a compromise reached after Hamas rejected pressure for more binding language — did not appear to go far enough.

U.S. and Israeli acceptance is crucial to the deal’s success. Unless they are convinced Hamas has sufficiently moderated, the West is unlikely to lift a crippling financial blockade of the Palestinian government, and it will be difficult to advance the peace process.

“Israel expects a new Palestinian government to respect and accept all three of the international community principles — recognition of Israel, acceptance of all former agreements and renunciation of all terror and violence,” Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said after the accord was announced.

She would not say whether Israel thinks the guidelines of the new government fulfill those demands.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said “we’ll see what any final agreement actually looks like and we’ll have to make an evaluation from there” as to whether it meets international demands.

Palestinians hope the agreement will avert an outright civil war. Hamas and Fatah gunmen have clashed repeatedly in recent months, killing dozens — including 30 who died in four days of fighting that ended with a fragile truce Sunday. The deal could fall apart as the two sides work out who will fill sensitive posts in the new government — particularly the interior ministry, which controls security forces.

Saudi Arabia — which put its credibility on the line by hosting the high-profile summit in the holy city of Mecca — will likely now face the task of selling the agreement to its ally, the United States.

To boost the new government, the kingdom promised $1 billion in aid to the Palestinians, Ahmed Youssef, a political adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said in Gaza.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal headed two days of intense negotiations in a Mecca palace overlooking the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine.

Much of the negotiations centered on a single word. Mr. Abbas pressed Hamas to accept the stronger stance of “committing to” past peace accords with Israel signed by the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization. But in the end, he was forced to settle for the promise to “respect” them.

A Hamas official appeared to suggest the movement was betting on a U.S. rejection but European and Arab support.

“I believe this agreement could be accepted by the European Union. We have had talks with European parties who say such an agreement could be accepted,” Nasser Shaer, deputy prime minister in the outgoing government, said in Ramallah.

Asked if the deal met U.S. and Israeli demands, Mr. Shaer said: “With Israel? No. America has its own scenario … we are betting on assistance from Arab countries. Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab states could help sell this agreement.”

The final agreement was announced at a ceremony aired live on Arab television last night, in which Saudi King Abdullah sat with Mr. Abbas on his right and Mr. Mashaal on his left.

Abbas aide Nabil Amr read a letter from Mr. Abbas proclaiming the accord and asking Mr. Haniyeh of Hamas to form the new coalition government within five weeks, divvying up Cabinet posts between the factions according to a formula agreed on in the Mecca talks.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mashaal insisted the agreement would bring peace between their factions and lavished praise on the Saudi monarch for his help.

Mr. Abbas said the deal would “satisfy our people … and bring us to the shores of peace. … This initiative has been crowned with success.”

Mr. Mashaal vowed the accord would put an end to violence after a series of truces between Fatah and Hamas gunmen that collapsed.

“I tell those who fear that the fate of this agreement will be the same fate of the old ones, … we have pledged our allegiance to God from this sacred place … and we will go back to our country fully committed to it.”

In Gaza City, celebratory gunfire was heard for more than an hour after the accord was announced. Residents expressed hope it would mean an end to the violence and the financial boycott, imposed by the West after Hamas came to power following January 2006 elections.

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